This one has to start with a double apology! This performance happened at Brighton Dome, actually several streets away from the beach. But the title allows me to pun on Glass’s later ’Einstein on the Beach’. And this is being published even later than the previous Eno post! For it was during the Brighton Festival, way back in May, that the man himself appeared in Brighton to perform his ‘classic’ minimalist work.
Though I love the music, I’ve often thought minimalism to be a misleading term. While it is reductive, it doesn’t follow that it is sparse or austere – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. As Festival curator Brian Eno has said of Glass, “this was actually the most detailed music I’d ever heard. It was all intricately exotic harmonies.”
Okay, four hours of music making only minute and at times imperceptible changes isn’t everybody’s idea of a great night out – at least judging by the number of empty seats. However the duration isn’t there for any self-important or bombastic reasons, like it might be in a symphony. Listening to symphonies is like watching epic films, they rely upon us accessing our memories to discern an overall structure behind the immediate notes. When a musical phrase recurs it’s like a subplot reappearing in a film, it would be meaningless if we did not slot it into place.
Minimalism uses duration in precisely the opposite way, creating an arch so vast you end up failing to notice it it, instead living in the moment. We might recognise a recurring phrase, but we don’t pin it to a previous point and note that is now coming back in fifteen minutes later. Instead phases recur with a peculiar familiarity, like in a half-remembered dream. Eno’s concept of surrender is vital here!
It’s a bit like finding strangely shaped pebbles washed up on the beach. (I told you we’d get to the beach!) In theory you know of the huge and slow geological processes that shaped and formed them. But you don’t really process this vast knowledge. Instead your eye darts from one enticing pebble to the next. Or, in another analogy, minimalism is like the ‘swept bag’ scene in ’American Beauty.’ At first it seems that there is nothing to see. But focus in and the scene becomes compelling.
It’s precisely this lack of variation, and the necessary focusing in on smaller and smaller details, that makes it mesmerising. You lose all perception of the passage of time, and the music instead takes place in an eternal present. (Perhaps for this reason the performance was no ‘challenge’ or endurance test at all. Listening to all four hours of it was like going to one of those enchanted places in fairy tales, which moved at a different time to the real world.)
Consequently, the ordering doesn’t matter very much at all. In this way it’s almost like an instillation piece. You could imagine twelve rooms where twelve separate ensembles played and replayed their own piece, with the audience wandering between them at will.
It’s perhaps significant that I’ve chiefly written here about this piece as an example of minimalism. It’s quite a formal piece, which demonstrates what minimalism does superbly well but does little else. Reich’s ’Different Trains’ or Bryars’ ’Sinking of the Titanic’ are equally emblematic of minimalism, but also have their own character – they’d lend themselves much more to be written about in particular. It’s a bit like the difference between a great punk song, like Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above’, and a great song that’s of the punk genre, like the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Holiday in Cambodia.’ (I am saying this partly to be the first person to compare ‘Music in 12 Parts’ to ‘Rise Above.’)
The programme quoted K. Robert Schwertz’s description of “a summation of all [Glass’s] minimalist techniques to date.” Glass himself has described this piece as “the end of minimalism" for him; "I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I'd written through it and come out the other end.” In short, the piece is simultaneously an epitome of something and something the composer had to go beyond.
...and in fact Glass reappeared the next night with a later, ‘post-minimalist’ piece. No promises, but I shall try to match his timescale...